In all my years traveling, I recall my worst experience as a tourist as being a bumper-to-bumper hour-long procession getting into the Smoky Mountain National Park during the height of leaf season. That experience was so magical, however, that it was well worth the wait.
Today I wanted to be a tourist. When I heard of all these waterfalls in the Whiskeytown area just outside of Redding, I envisioned my day trip walking amidst other happy tourists snapping photos of these natural wonders — and then heading to Weaverville for a leisurely stroll and a nice sit-down in a cafe. I thought I had it all planned out. But I got my first sign right out of the gates…
I always like to gas up somewhere after I’m already pointed in the right direction and comfortably settled into the first leg of a journey. And, knowing Whiskeytown was just outside of Redding, I figured that’s where I’d get fuel before heading on to Weaverville. But it turns out Whiskeytown is sort of a ghost town and outdoor recreation area — no services. Weaverville is 35 miles away, which would really be pushing the issue. No problem. I’d just spend the entire day right here with happy tourists taking photos of waterfalls…
Where are all the happy tourists? I’m the only person in the welcome center and I can’t help but wonder what this park ranger is trying to get me into. He seems to be steering me the direction of trying the “less popular” Brandy Creek Falls. But it’s his personal favorite and the mile-and-a-half hike doesn’t sound so bad.
There is one catch. You have to drive a few miles up the mountain on a “dirt road.” A dirt road? I immediately think of my van. The front-end suspension still seems a little ill from my initial journey to Redding. The transmission also needs to be checked out — something I’ve been meaning to do. Do I really want to push this beast up a bumpy mountain road, a dirt one no less? Well, this gentleman assures me this particular dirt road is well-maintained. After all, he’s taken his old Honda Civic up there. (I can’t help but think about my first car, an old ’79 Ford Maverick that I was perfectly willing to drive over potholes at high speeds half-hoping to put the old beater out of it’s misery).
I have no idea what he meant by suggesting this was a very well-maintained dirt road. Some of the craters in it are about 10 inches deep. Some of the grades would make my entire vehicle shake violently. At times, if I ventured over 10 miles per hour, I would slip a little — not a good idea when there’s a steep drop-off on the right. This made for a long, slow ascent.
Oh, did I mention it’s one narrow lane for both directions of traffic? Of course I’m the only soul in the park at the moment, but I dread the thought of having to back up to a section of the road or turnout wide enough to accommodate two vehicles (this would not happen until later in the day coming back down the mountain, on two occasions).
I see a sign for Brandy Creek Trail. I’m not sure this is the one. I’m looking for Brandy Creek Falls. I venture up the incredibly rugged path for only a few minutes before realizing it couldn’t possibly be the right trail. The level of difficulty is way to strenuous for a waterfall hike — this was more like mountain-climbing. On several occasions I heard a thud-thud-rustle-rustle. I’d quickly turn around but would never see anything. I made a mental note to find a large stick before my next hike. It was probably a deer, but still…
I did eventually make my way to the top and find the Brandy Creek Falls trailhead. Finally — the fun, touristy part! Think again. This trail is absolutely brutal. It’s a mile and a half straight up. My ankles were bending in a very unnatural way. I was constantly out of breath and stopped on more than one occasion. Is it me? Am I really that out of shape?
The waterfall. Nearly two and a half hours after I stopped in at the visitor center, I finally reached the falls. I was looking at it from afar, however — on the other side of a canyon. Tree limbs blocked the falls from full view. In fact, I’d be embarrassed to even show a picture of it — so I won’t. Needless to say, this entire journey was much ado about little. Unless you’re an exercise enthusiast.
After I did a little bit of reading, I headed back down. Let me tell you how steep this trail is. My socks were literally burning the soles of my feet from the friction. No joke. But I’m happy to report I encountered my first human being. He was huffing and puffing his way up the path. He gasped, “Not much further?”
I replied, “No. But it’s really not worth it…” I jokingly told him he should go ahead and turn back. He did laugh and remain in high spirits, but you could tell he shared my sentiment in this matter. It felt good to be able to spread the joy.
After my harrowing drive back down the mountain, I decided to make on last attempt to salvage a pleasant memory from this day trip. I stopped at the lake. As soon as I stepped on the beach, I made a “bee-line” for a large piece of driftwood that I could sit down on. It had been a weird day already, so I thought I was only imagining what sounded like a swarm of bees. Until I walked right them! Yup, I walked right in the middle of a swarm of very large bees…or horseflies…or something. I don’t know what they were. All I know is that they were large and certainly not afraid of me. After I got out of the thick of it, the “scout” or “soldier” or “bully” followed me and hovered in front of my face for awhile, as if to intimidate me. It was a vicious-looking creature but I do regret not getting a picture of that.
And don’t worry. I did take some snapshots. Here are the highlights from “My Worst Daytrip Ever.”
Next Story: Long-Distance Traveler